Constructivist Chess

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Ideas / 1 — Chess Moves

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Over dinner tonight my friend H told me a story that’s simply too good not to share. It illustrates so clearly the rote learning problem, that I have to use it. Sorry, H.

The problem is this. As a kid, H was taught one of the key bits of chess lore — probably a queen’s mate or a scholars mate, but in essence one of

the unusual openings that almost always beats another new player. So from an early age, H was unbeatable at chess. But — and this is critical — she didn’t know how to play

This is a problem.

I learned chess a different way. I learned by playing the game. A lot. I lost five or six games for every game I won. Along the way, I acquired something that I don’t think one can learn through rote memory: pattern recognition. The ability to recognize that pieces are on the board to take advantage of certain opportunities is one thing — the ability to set up those particular patterns is another.

These patterns sometimes have names. Sometimes they don’t. But learning just one or two of these patterns by rote is not enough. They only implant themselves in your brain after having been on the business end of them five or six time. And then, maybe you recognize how to implement that pattern on someone else. Or maybe you don’t. But without the constant experience of being subjected to the rigors and rules of the game, there’s no way to know what patterns you will or won’t absorb.

In the last month or so, I’ve drawn out the geometric proof of the Pythagorean Theorem for five or six folks. This is part and parcel of the patrimony of the Western world. Yet people don’t know it; they act like they’ve never seen it. It’s a thing of beauty and wonder. So often, I’m told, their geometry classes were all measurements of angles and lengths and areas — none of the elegance of proportion, and none of the process that gets one to that elegance.

Today in my design class we watched this TED talk by Nils Diffinaent, apparently a famous designer of chairs. As TED talks go, it’s not particularly inspiring. He’s taking about chairs. But underlying that chair is a thirty-five year long apprenticeship in drawing and makery — drawings of airplanes, learning to paint (and being bad at it), managing a staff of forty, collapsing his company to one, designing a chair that just works without adjusting any levers… Twenty five years in one company, working on many problems… and then nine working on just one problem….

The man’s job was pattern recognition and pattern creation. Just as I learned chess.

Maybe I’m simplifying. Maybe I’m misunderstanding his work. Maybe I’m misrepresenting a career he himself misrepresented (People are more often their mythic selves at TED than anywhere else).

But maybe in our efforts to teach to the test, or cover all the content, or meet our curricular goals, we’re missing the real game?

Taiji day 38: it obeys your commands


In the first Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke (clearly I mean the one we all saw first, back in 1977), in response to Luke asking if the Force controls our actions, “Partly. But it also obeys your commands.”

I may not have the line quite right, and some of my friends will rag on me for that, but it’s nonetheless true that Chi will follow the watercourse way unless redirected by your action. That is, it will take the path of least resistance, and flow downstream and out to sea, and you’ll never have it again. But, it will do that anyway. Whether you do something with that flows to you, is up to you.

You have several choices. You can make yourself a deep pool — a receptacle or vessel where Chi gathers. You can fill yourself up with rocks and branches, which trouble the waters and send chaotic clouds of chi in all directions whenever you move — and you move all the time. You can build the mechanism and structure, so the chi comes into you smoothly, and exits forcefully in a directed stream. You can build other systems, so that sometimes the chi exited you along aggressive paths, and sometimes by healthful paths. Or you can do all of these.

But none of these structure, these constrictions, these restraints, these methods, are possible without moving yourself around. Chi, or the Force, will obey your commands. But only if you’ve done the work to build the channels that chi will flow in. It’s always going to flow away from you — what work will you have it do while you have it?